After the tables were properly set, the ice water was poured, and everyone was seated, the chef greeted guests and described the lunch prepared for them:
Beef lasagna with homemade tomato sauce and grated Parmesan cheese; roasted red peppers with rosemary; green salad with creamy herb vinaigrette; and for dessert, lemon granita.
The table captains, outfitted in white chef's jackets, were summoned to carry trays of food and serve it family style.
Not exactly the setting or menu you might expect for an urban school cafeteria, but such was the scene at Girard College in North Philadelphia last week, where 260 city kids ages 6 to 17 were having lunch at a camp program.
Then again, not many school cafeterias have chef Marc Vetri and partner Jeff Benjamin, who run three of the city's finest Italian restaurants, creating the lunch menu and overseeing the service.
Vetri and fellow chef Jeff Michaud developed menus at the request of a restaurant customer who runs Dream Camp, a summer scholarship program for low-income kids. In the process, Vetri and Benjamin became interested in expanding their charitable work to include reinventing the much-maligned federal school lunch program.
"My goal? It is to have every single school in America serving a fresh, family-style lunch," said Vetri. "There is no reason it can't be done."
The camp's lunch menu included sautéed shrimp with gazpacho, rice with cilantro and lime, and melon salad; hamburgers, eggplant fries, and grapes; baked cod, tomato panzanella salad, and strawberries with mint whipped cream; barbecued beef brisket, coleslaw, corn bread, and watermelon; and a tuna melt (with fresh, not canned, tuna), marinated mushrooms, and mango slices.
One of the campers, Isaiah Watkins, 9, was reluctant to try some of the foods he had never tasted before. "I didn't think I would like it, but I did," he said. "They told me to try it when it was passed, and I did." He found he especially liked barbecued brisket and chicken cacciatore.
Another camper, Rolanphie Galan, 12, was impressed by a simple fact: "Here the food is cooked by people; you actually see people cooking it," she said. "At my school, lunch comes in packages. It's kind of disgusting." A typical lunch is a hot dog and hash browns reheated in a microwave, she said. "I get it for free. Maybe that explains it."
"Lunch at my school is OK," said Nate Norman, 12, "but this lunch is bangin'."
Encouraged by the success of his second summer doing lunches at the camp, Vetri says he hopes to expand to other schools in the region to prove that fresh, healthful, affordable, enjoyable school lunches are not impossible. He and Benjamin are speaking with schools in Philadelphia and Camden, and so far they are getting the most interest from charter schools.
Most Philadelphia public schools don't have full-service kitchens, and students wait in line to get a prepackaged meal, trucked in from Brooklyn and reheated. In June, the school district announced it was closing 26 of the remaining 100 cafeterias that still cook fresh lunches.
Ideally, there should be a chef at every school, Vetri said. But he and Benjamin dream that they could open a local commissary and run it as a nonprofit restaurant, delivering meals to schools without kitchens.
Wayne Grasela, head of food services for the Philadelphia School District, who has spoken with the Vetri folks, says he is restricted by school facilities, the district's average USDA reimbursement of $2.39 per meal, and myriad regulations, including how the meal is served, nutritional requirements, portion size, and calorie count, to name a few.
"We are always looking for opportunities to improve what we are offering to the children," Grasela said. "We are always willing to talk to people who want to be partners with us." He said the district was committed to increasing the fresh fruit and vegetables at all schools.
Vetri says his team is meeting the USDA rules and hitting the per-meal food cost set by the government; his cost, he says, is averaging $2.20 per meal. His staff worked with the kitchen staff at Girard, suggesting vendors, and providing help and instruction with preparation. However, his cost does not include the labor provided by Girard College, which would add to the tab.
In his plan, he would not be looking to turn a profit, and the Vetri Foundation would solicit donations to augment the federal money, Vetri said.
Michael Rouse, who runs ESF for-profit summer camps throughout the Northeast and also Dream Camp scholarship programs in Philadelphia and Hartford, Conn., said he approached Vetri because lunch was the only "un-dreamlike" part of his Dream Camps.
"We found that 80 percent of our behavior problems were after 1 p.m.," he said. "The kids were so torqued up on so much sugar that their behavior went out of control."
Since Vetri's program was started last summer, the infractions are significantly reduced, Rouse said. "It shows me that food really can change behavior."
One of the keys to the success of the lunch program - and a key stumbling block with government agencies - is the family-style serving. USDA officials initially balked before approving the Vetri menus and family-style service because they didn't think portion size could be controlled. Rouse, who argued the program's merits to top officials in Harrisburg before it was approved in 2010, said they finally relented when Vetri staff suggested that the meals could be divided into appropriate portions in the kitchen before being brought to the table.
"We felt so strongly that this had to be served family-style," said Vetri, "where everyone sits around the table and they eat and share and interact. It moves from a line where someone slops something on your plate, to more of a family meal."
Amir Tucker, 12, who was enjoying lasagna and salad at lunch at Dream Camp last week, couldn't agree more. "It's much quicker, and you have longer to eat your lunch," he said. "At school we have to stand in line and wait, and then you have to rush to eat your lunch," he said.
And Ayden Ortiz, 7, wearing a chef's jacket that fell below his knees, was so proud to carry out his duties as table captain last week. "It's the most important job," he said.
Vetri hopes to get licensed as a school food-service vendor and prove, one school at a time, that it can be done.
"When we talk to these USDA officials, it is always roadblocks here and there. They say, 'It's nice, but it's not going to work.' They say, 'You can make the salad, but they are not going to eat it.' But you know what? If you are in line and the choice is salad or french fries, the kids are going to take the french fries. But if you are sitting at a table and the salad is passed to you and it looks nice, you are going to take some and you are going to try it."
Several Vetri staff members volunteered during the five-week program. At least two people were in the kitchen daily to prep and cook the recipes with the Girard staff.
"I think it's been great," said Deborah Anthony, an Aramark cook/consultant, who works in the Girard cafeteria. "The kids are eating things they never ate before."
But, she and the other staff conceded, it was "a lot" more work. "Everything is fresh and needs to be chopped," she said. "The tuna, it was a whole fish, it had to be baked, deboned, and chopped up" for the tuna melts. Yes, but how did it taste? "A little too fresh," she said, candidly.
Is it realistic to think that a five-week summer program with 260 children can be expanded to larger school districts like Philadelphia, for instance, with 155,000 children?
"We know it will take an effort," said Vetri. "You have to watch food and labor costs. . . . We have just decided we are going to do it, one, two, three schools at time. And we are going to prove it can be done.
"When you see the smiles and the happiness and the gratefulness of all those kids sitting in that lunchroom, how can you not get motivated to try and change the world?" Vetri said. "How do you not want that for everybody?"
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 large onion
2 large carrots
4 celery stalks
1/4 cup olive oil
11/2 boxes dried pasta sheets
11/2 pounds ground beef
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 clove garlic, crushed
16-ounce can plum tomatoes
11/2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
1/2 pound grated Parmigiano cheese
1. Julienne the onion finely (cut into thin strips) and brunoise (finely dice and slow-cook in olive oil) the carrots and celery.
2. Cook the pasta sheets in salted boiling water for half the amount of time the box directs, then shock in ice water. Lay out on towels to dry.
3. Brown the meat in a large pan with the crushed garlic; season with salt and pepper.
4. Add the vegetables and cook 10 to 12 minutes more.
5. Add the canned tomatoes and add water until the meat and vegetables are not quite (three-quarters of the way) covered.
6. Wrap the rosemary, peppercorns and bayleaf in cheesecloth and put in the pan with the ragu sauce.
7. Season with salt and cook very slowly on the stove top for 2 to 3 hours or in the oven at 300 degrees for 2 to 3 hours.
8. When finished, put a layer of pasta on the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch Pyrex pan, top with the ragu and grated cheese, and repeat until you reach the top; then top off with more grated cheese.
9. Bake in the oven at 400 until golden brown, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Per serving (based on 8): 667 calories, 49 grams protein, 70 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 514 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.
Roasted Red Peppers
Makes 8 servings
8 red bell peppers
Salt and pepper to taste
1 garlic clove, minced
4 springs fresh rosemary
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1. Seed and slice the peppers.
2. Toss the peppers with salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil.
3. Roast at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until tender
4. Mix with olive oil and vinegar and season.
Per serving: 120 calories, 1 gram protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 10 grams fat, no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.